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Plenty of sci-fi futures are now in the past

Blade Runner
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Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: List of stories set in a future now past

What it’s about: To celebrate our 300th entry, this week we look to the future! All the way to the year… 2000. Yes, the past was once somebody’s future, and yesterday’s future dystopias, utopias, and mid-topias were often set in a far-flung future that we’ve already moved past. Let’s look at some of those futures that never came to pass.

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Biggest controversy: Wikipedia considers song lyrics legitimate speculative fiction. Most notably, Prince’s lyric “two-thousand-zero-zero party over oops out of time” from 1982’s “1999,” “predicts a coming apocalypse.” Eazy-E agreed, as “Any Last Werdz” from his 1993 EP It’s On 187um Killa also predicted a 1999 apocalypse. The other popular end-of-the-world date is 2012, when the end of the Mayan calendar’s “Long Cycle” prompted many failed predictions of doom. Britney Spears, Incubus, and Jay Sean (featuring Nicki Minaj) have all referenced the world ending in 2012 (it didn’t).

Billy Joel made a smaller-scale and much longer-term prediction in “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway),” in which New York, not the whole world, is destroyed in 2017 and the singer takes refuge in Miami.

Strangest fact: While most sci-fi hedges its bets and sets the story long after both author and audience have shuffled off this mortal coil, some stories are far more daring, portraying a drastically different near-future, when in fact the near future usually looks mostly like the present but everyone’s phone is thinner and more expensive. Kevin Costner’s infamous bomb The Postman took place only 16 years after its 1997 release, and in that short time the public has forgotten who Shakespeare is (but thankfully not Tom Petty). But the 2013 of the film is still reeling from a long-ago disaster that happened in… 1997, meaning the movie’s premise was already out of date by the time the film hit DVD.

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The Postman isn’t the only one that cut it close. 12 Monkeys (1995) predicts a virus that wipes out most of humanity in 1996; Roland Emmerich’s 2012 came out in 2009; 1988’s Alien Nation portrays a 1991 in which aliens have integrated into society after landing on Earth in 1988. The 2005 video game Battlefield 2 is set during a 2007 war between the U.S. and China, and an Islamic superstate managed to spring up in just 2 years (by comparison, the EU’s formation took about 35). Along similar lines, Call Of Duty’s 2013 entry Ghosts predicts a united South America by 2015 that invades North America in 2019.

Thing we were happiest to learn: We’ve avoided a lot of nuclear wars. Various fictions on the list have predicted nuclear war for 1958, 1964, 1966, 1969, every year from 1985 to 1989, 1995 to 1999, at least eight in the 21st century, and many more. For whatever reason, three separate nuclear wars were predicted for 2007, when in fact that year saw North Korea (temporarily) shut down its nuclear program. Ironically, one of those predictions may have actually averted nuclear war. The 1983 TV movie The Day After shows the devastating aftermath of a nuclear attack in Kansas in 1989. According to legend, then-President Reagan saw it, was shocked out of his previous sabre-rattling, and started down the path toward disarmament.

Nuclear wasn’t the only type of war to be wrongly predicted. Julius Vogel’s 1889 work, Anno Domini 2000, widely regarded as New Zealand’s first science-fiction novel, predicted that by the end of the following century, women would finally have the right to vote across the extant British Empire, but that a U.S.-U.K. war would break out when the British Emperor refused to marry the president’s daughter. (Imagine such an absurd scenario! The president wanting someone else to marry his daughter!) Britain wins the war, and at long last gets its colonies back.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: We never got that moon base we were promised (or the flying cars, while we’re on the subject). The post-2001 sci-fi boom was eager to predict humans living in space, and the sooner the better.

Every episode of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century opened with narration: “The year is 1987, and NASA launches the last of America’s deep-space probes.” The show aired from 1979 to 1981, thereby avoiding the problem of what to say in season eight. Space: 1999 at least had the good sense to place its moon base setting a good 22 years after the show’s premiere. U.K. series Moonbase 3 (1973) posited no fewer than five competing moon bases by 2003. (The 1953 film and future Mystery Science Theater 3000 entry Project Moonbase had the same scenario unfolding in 1970, and 1966 Jerry Lewis sex comedy Way… Way Out had shenanigans going on in competing U.S. and Soviet moon bases in 1989.)

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Journey Into Space, the last BBC radio series to beat television in the ratings, ran from 1953 to 58, and predicted a moon landing by 1965—not far off from the real thing. Its prediction of a Mars mission taking off from the moon in 1971, however, was a bit overly optimistic.

Also noteworthy: At least one near-future prediction was unnervingly accurate. In 1925, German writer Arthur Landsberger wrote a tragic novel he intended as a satire of Weimar-era politics. Berlin Without Jews tells the story of a far-right nationalist, anti-Semitic party taking power. Jewish homes are looted and dozens are killed. The government exiles all German Jews, and faces an international backlash. The book only differs from history when the fascist party collapses, a new centrist government takes over, and welcomes the exiles back.

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Landsberger and his book were both popular in the ’20s, but faded as his nightmare scenario started to unfold in real time. Landsberger himself committed suicide six months after Hitler took power, perhaps knowing as well as anyone what was to come.

Also also noteworthy: We owe the word “robot” to a play from 1921. Karel Čapek wrote Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, (or Rossum’s Universal Robots), set in a factory in the year 2000 that makes synthetic humans, for which he coined the word “robot.” The robots of the story are made of flesh and blood (more akin to Blade Runner’s replicants than the metal men of later sci-fi). They rebel and wipe out the human race, establishing an ironclad trope in which every robot story simply retold the Frankenstein myth until Isaac Asimov upended the genre with his 1950 short story collection I, Robot.

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: There’s still plenty of future left that hasn’t come to pass. Wikipedia has an exhaustive recounting of the remaining years of the 21st century in fiction, from Sega Genesis game Super Baseball 2020 to Spider-Man 2099.

Further down the Wormhole: No slouch when it came to writing realistic visions of the future, H.G. Wells corrected predicted chemical weapons and laser guns in his 1898 novel War Of The Worlds. Weapons that use lasers, microwaves, or other beams of pure energy have fascinated science and the military alike. In 1935, a British Air Ministry investigation into a death ray unexpectedly led to the development of radar. It wouldn’t be the U.K.’s first flirtation with death rays, as inventor Harry Grindell Matthews attempted to sell His Majesty’s government a death ray, but refused to demonstrate how (or even that) it worked. Was he a fraud? Or a petulant genius? We’ll take a look next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.